Running An Internet Company vs. Running For President

I remember an incident back in 1988 when Mike Dukakis was running for President against the senior George Bush.

There was a debate and a question was asked about how he’d feel about the death penalty if his wife was brutally raped and murdered. As described in Wikipedia, it went down like this:

The issue of capital punishment came up in the October 13, 1988 debate between the two presidential nominees. Bernard Shaw, the moderator of the debate, asked Dukakis, "Governor, if Kitty Dukakis [his wife] were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?"
Dukakis replied coolly, "No, I don’t, and I think you know that I’ve
opposed the death penalty during all of my life," and explained his
stance.

It was the end of Dukakis’ chances at the Presidency as he showed no emotion and anger at the thought or the question. He came across as the cold bureaucrat his opponents had made him out to be.

Fast forward to last week. Terry Semel was being interviewed at the D Conference. I was in the audience. The subject was censorship in China and Yahoo!’s willingness to look the other way in order to do business there. Semel stated Yahoo!’s position that it was better to engage with China and push them at every opportunity to become more open than to leave the country entirely. It was a good position, in my opinion, and he made it well.

But then someone from the audience got up and asked a question. The question was what would Yahoo!’s position be if it was the Nazi Germany and Hitler instead of China. Semel said something to the effect that "I wasn’t even alive then, I don’t honestly know what we would do".

Wrong answer.  As Joe at Techdirt explains, when Hitler the Nazis come up, the best thing to do is end the discussion. Semel was clearly annoyed with the question but he should have refused the answer it instead of saying anything. Because that was a "why do you beat your wife" kind of question and there is no good answer to it.

This brings me to a larger point. Running a technology company in the Internet age requires a lot more political skills than it used to. The Internet is way more than a technology and companies that participate in its commercial development are in the political space as much as the tech space.

So Terry and his colleagues had better get used to questions like this and get some help in answering them (or not answering them).